1 research and the research Problem
WHAT IS RESEARCH? 2
WHAT IT IS FOR – THE OBJECTIVES OF RESEARCH 7
TYPES OF RESEARCH 8
THE RESEARCH PROCESS 22
Desirable characteristics of research findings 27
STARTING YOUR OWN RESEARCH 28
Finding and defining a research problem 29
Some common mistakes 31
Aids to locating and analysing problems 33
Research problem definition 35
The sub-problems 36
PLANNING A RESEARCH PROJECT 40
Choosing a research strategy 40
Planning your projects 42
THE NEXT STEPS: FINDING YOUR RESEARCH PROBLEM AREA 51
Checklist of activities that will progress your research 52
Consolidation and assessment 54
FURTHER READING 54
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2 Your Research Project
•• To explain what research is, and what it is not, and the objectives of research
•• To outline the different types of research
•• To discuss the research process
•• To introduce the concept at the heart of any research project – the research
problem – and to discuss what a researchable problem is
•• To warn of common mistakes
•• To describe how to choose your research strategy and plan your research project
The shortest way of describing the contents of this chapter is to say that it provides
a starting point for your research efforts.
It introduces the concept of research as understood in the academic world, and
contrasts it to the loose way the word ‘research’ is used in everyday speech.
However, even in the academic world, the nature of research is the subject of a great
deal of debate. The characteristics of scientific method are briefly explained, and
the interpretivist alternative is discussed as one of the aspects of the debate about
research methods. This debate is treated in much greater detail in Chapter 2. An
overview of the research process is given showing various ways to illustrate it.
An essential early step in the process of research is to find a research problem.
What a research problem is, and how to find one, are explained. The nature of your
problem will, in its turn, influence the form of your research. It is this quest for a
problem which forms the task in the final section, where what you have learned in
the earlier sections is applied to your own subject.
Key words are shown in bold and are repeated in the margin so you can scan
through the chapter to check up on their meaning.
What is Research?
‘Research’ is a term loosely used in everyday speech to describe a multitude of
activities, such as collecting masses of information, delving into esoteric theories,
and producing wonderful new products. It is important that a student or practitioner
embarking on a programme of academic or practical research has a clear idea of
what the word ‘research’ really means, and clears away any misconceptions that
might exist owing to the word’s common use in other fields.
It is, therefore, worth looking at a few of the ways that the word is used in
common language to describe activities, often called research, which are not
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Research and the Research Problem 3
research in its real meaning, and also at some of the emotive language that
surrounds the term.
These are some of the ways in which the term ‘research’ is wrongly used:
1 As a mere gathering of facts or information: ‘I’ll go and do a bit of research into the
subject.’ This usually means quickly reading through a few books or magazines to
become better informed about something. Such information can be collected in
other ways too, e.g. by asking people questions in the street or by recording the
number of vehicles driving along a road.This kind of activity may more accurately be
called‘collection of information’,and can be carried out in a systematic and thorough
way. It certainly can be seen as an important part of research.
2 Moving facts from one situation to another: ‘I have done my research, and come up
with this information which I present in this paper.’ It is easy to collect information
and reassemble it in a report or paper, duly annotated and referenced, and think of it
as research.However,even if the work is meticulously carried out,and brings enlight-
enment about the subject to the author and the reader, one vital ingredient of the
research process is missing – the interpretation of the information.One might call this
form of activity‘assembly of information’.This is,as with the collection of information,
an important component of research, but not its entirety.
3 As an esoteric activity, far removed from practical life: ‘He’s just gone back into his
laboratory to bury himself in his research into the mysterious processes of bimolecu-
lar fragmentation.’ While many research projects deal with abstract and theoretical
subjects, it is often forgotten that the activity of research has greatly influenced all
aspects of our daily lives and created our understanding of the world. It is an activity
that is prompted by our need to satisfy our natural curiosity and our wish to make
sense of the world around us.
4 As a word to get your product noticed: ‘Years of painstaking research have produced
this revolutionary, labour-saving product!’Very often the term ‘research’ is used in an
emotive fashion in order to impress and build confidence. If you ask for evidence of
the research process and methodology,you are likely to be faced with incomprehen-
sion,muddled thinking,and possibly even worse:the product may be the outcome of
So how can true research be defined? Box 1.1 suggests some alternatives.
Box 1.1 Definitions of research
The Oxford Encyclopaedic English Dictionary defines research as:
a the systematic investigation into the study of materials, sources etc. in
order to establish facts and reach new conclusions
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4 Your Research Project
b an endeavour to discover new or collate old facts etc.by the scientific study
of a subject or by a course of critical investigation. (OEED, 1991, p. 1228)
Leedy defines it from a more utilitarian point of view:
Research is a procedure by which we attempt to find systematically,and with
the support of demonstrable fact,the answer to a question or the resolution
of a problem. (1989, p. 5)
Dominowski is so terse in his definition that he seems to miss the point (see above):
Research is a fact-finding activity. (1980, p. 2)
Kerlinger uses more technical language to define it as:
the systematic, controlled, empirical and critical investigation of hypothetical
propositions about presumed relations among natural phenomena.(1970,p.8)
You could go on finding definitions of research, which would, as in the examples in
the box, differ in emphasis and scope. What is certain is that there are many differ-
ent opinions about and approaches to research. However, as a means of achieving a
greater comprehension of our world, research distinguishes itself from the two
other basic and more ancient means, those of experience and reasoning.
Briefly, experience results in knowledge and understanding gained either
individually or as a group or society, or shared by experts or leaders, through
day-to-day living. Reflective awareness of the world around us, present to a degree
even in other mammals, provides invaluable knowledge. The most immediate form
of experience is personal experience, the body of knowledge gained individually
through encountering situations and events in life. A child learns to walk by trial
and error, and an adult gets adept at decorating jobs in the house after renovating
several rooms. When solutions to problems are not to be found within the personal
experience of an individual, then he or she may turn to those who have wider or
more specialist experience for advice, for example a solicitor in legal matters. Beyond
this are the ‘experts’ who have written books on particular subjects, e.g. health care
or the finer points of playing golf.
Knowledge gained from experience forms an essential aid to our understanding
and activities in everyday life. However, it does have severe limitations as a means
of methodically and reliably extending knowledge and understanding of the world.
This is because learning from experience tends to be rather haphazard and uncon-
trolled. Conclusions are often quickly drawn and not exhaustively tested, ‘common
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Research and the Research Problem 5
sense’ is invoked as self-evident, and the advice of experts is frequently misplaced or
seen as irrelevant. Despite these shortcomings, experience can be a valuable starting
point for systematic research, and may provide a wealth of questions to be investigated
and ideas to be tested.
Reasoning is a method of coming to conclusions by the use of logical argument.
There are three basic forms of argument: deductive, inductive and a combination
of both called inductive/deductive (or hypothetico-deductive, or scientific
method). Deductive reasoning was first developed by the Ancient Greeks, and was
refined by Aristotle through his deductive syllogisms. An argument based on
deduction begins with general statements and, through logical argument, comes
to a specific conclusion. A syllogism is the simplest form of this kind of argument
and consists of a major general premise (statement), followed by a minor, more
specific premise, and a conclusion which follows logically. Here is a simple example:
All live mammals breathe. – general premise
This cow is a live mammal. – specific premise
Therefore, this cow breathes. – conclusion
Inductive argument works the other way round. It starts from specific observations
and derives general conclusions therefrom. Its logical form cannot be so neatly
encapsulated in a three-line format, but a simple example will demonstrate the line
All swans that have been observed are white in colour. – specific observations
Therefore one can conclude that all swans are white. – general conclusion
Figure 1.1 Knowledge gained from experience forms an
essential aid to our understanding and activities in
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6 Your Research Project
The value of inductive argument was revealed by Bacon in the 1600s. By careful and
systematic observation of the events in the world around us, many theories have
been evolved to explain the rules of nature. Darwin’s theory of evolution and
Mendel’s discovery of genetics are perhaps the most famous theories claimed (even
by their authors) to be derived from inductive argument.
However, deductive reasoning was found to be limiting because it could only
handle certain types of statement, and could become increasingly divorced from
observation and experience. Purely inductive reasoning proved to be unwieldy and
haphazard, and in practice was rarely applied to the letter. Medawar (1969, pp. 10–11)
quoted Darwin writing in his sixth edition of Origin of Species, where he said of
himself that he ‘worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory
collected facts on a wholesale scale’, but later on he admitted he could not resist
forming a hypothesis on every subject.
When inductive and deductive argument were combined to form inductive/
deductive argument, the to-and-fro process of developing hypotheses (testable
theories) inductively from observations, charting their implications by deduction,
and testing them to refine or reject them in the light of the results, formed a powerful
basis for the progress of knowledge, especially of scientific knowledge, and is now
commonly referred to as scientific method.
It is the combination of experience with deductive and inductive reasoning which
is the foundation of modern scientific research. Three characteristics of research
can be seen to distinguish it from gaining knowledge either purely by experience or
by reasoning, as shown in Box 1.2.
Box 1.2 Three characteristics of research
1 Gaining experience is an uncontrolled and haphazard activity,while research is
systematic and controlled.
2 Reasoning can operate in an abstract world, divorced from reality, while
research is empirical and turns to experience and the world around us for
3 Unlike experience and reason, research aims to be self-correcting.The process
of research involves rigorously testing the results obtained, and methods and
results are open to public scrutiny and criticism.
Research is a combination of both experience and reasoning and must be
regarded as the most successful approach to the discovery of truth. (Cohen
and Manion, 1994, p. 5)
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Research and the Research Problem 7
When we talk about this type of systematic research, it is usually assumed that it
makes use of the rigorous and questioning techniques of scientific enquiry. This
form of enquiry is called scientific method.
What it is for – the Objectives of Research
Research can have several legitimate objectives, either singly or in combination. The
main, overriding objective must be that of gaining useful or interesting knowledge.
Reynolds (1971, pp. 4–11) listed five things that he believed most people expected
scientific knowledge to provide. These, together with one that I have added myself,
can conveniently be used as the basis for a list of the possible objectives of research,
as in Box 1.3.
Box 1.3 Objectives of research
•• Creating a sense of understanding
•• Providing potential for control
Categorization involves forming a typology of objects, events or concepts. This can
be useful in explaining what ‘things’ belong together and how. One of the main
problems is to decide on the most useful methods of categorization, depending on
the reasons for attempting the categorization in the first place. Following from this
is the problem of determining what criteria to use to judge the usefulness of the
categorization. Two obvious criteria are mentioned by Reynolds: that of exhaustive-
ness, by which all items should be able to be placed into a category, without any
being left out; and that of mutual exclusiveness, by which each item should, without
question, be appropriately placed into only one category. Finally, it should be noted
that the typologies must be consistent with the concepts used in the theoretical
background to the study.
There are many events and issues that we do not fully, or even partly, understand.
The objective of providing an explanation of particular phenomena has been a
common one in many forms of research.
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8 Your Research Project
On the basis of an explanation of a phenomenon it is often possible to make a
prediction of future events related to it. In the natural sciences these predictions are
often made in the form of abstract statements, for example given C1, C2, … , Cn, if
X, then Y. More readily understood are predictions made in text form, for example:
if a person disagrees with a friend about his attitude toward an object, then a state
of psychological tension is produced.
Whilst explanation and prediction can reveal the inner workings of phenomena,
i.e. what happens and when, they do not always provide a sense of understanding
of phenomena – how or why they happen. A complete explanation of a phenome-
non will require a wider study of the processes which surround the phenomenon
and influence it or cause it to happen.
A good level of understanding of a phenomenon might lead to the possibility of
finding a way to control it. Obviously, not all phenomena lend themselves to this: for
example, it is difficult to imagine how the disciplines of astronomy or geology could
include an element of control. But all of technology is dependent on the ability to
control the behaviour, movement or stability of things. Even in society there are many
attempts, often based on scientific principles, to control events such as crime, poverty,
the economy etc., though the record of success is more limited than in the natural
sciences, and perhaps there are cases of attempting the impossible. The problem is
that such attempts cannot be truly scientific as the variables cannot all be controlled,
nor can one be certain that all relevant variables have been considered. The crucial
issue in control is to understand how certain variables affect one another, and then
be able to change the variables in such a way as to produce predictable results.
Evaluation is making judgements about the quality of objects or events. Quality
can be measured either in an absolute sense or on a comparative basis. To be
useful, the methods of evaluation must be relevant to the context and intentions
of the research. For example, level of income is a relevant variable in the evalua-
tion of wealth, while degree of marital fidelity is not. Evaluation goes beyond
measurement, as it implies allotting values to objects or events. It is the context
of the research which will help to establish the types of values that should be used.
Types of Research
The different kinds of questions which instigate research require approaches to
research that are distinguished by their theoretical background and methodologies.
A brief summary of various types of research will illustrate the possibilities for your
Several major types of research can be identified, as in Box 1.4.Writers differ in how
they distinguish between them,and some catalogue many more types than those listed.
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Research and the Research Problem 9
Box 1.4 Major types of research
I will use these types as convenient overall headings and include under them a
variety of approaches which share some common features.
Historical research has been defined as the systematic and objective location, evalu-
ation and synthesis of evidence in order to establish facts and draw conclusions
about past events (Borg, 1963).
It involves exploring the meaning and relationship of events, and as its resource
it uses primary historical data in the form of historic artefacts, records and writings.
It attempts to find out what happened in the past and to reveal reasons for why and
how things happened. An interesting aspect of the values of historical research as
categorized by Hill and Kerber (1967), listed in Box 1.5, is the relationship the past
can have with the present and even the future.
Box 1.5 Values of historical research
•• It enables solutions to contemporary problems to be sought in the past.
•• It throws light on present and future trends.
•• It stresses the relative importance and the effects of the interactions that are
found within all cultures.
•• It allows for the revaluation of data supporting selected hypotheses, theories
and generalizations that are presently held about the past.
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10 Your Research Project
Historical evidence, consisting of primary historical data, must be scrutinized from
two points of view. The first is to ascertain whether the artefact or document to be
studied is genuine. There have been many mistakes made in the past, either through
a lack of analytical rigour by over-enthusiastic researchers, or through fraud. (You
might remember the Piltdown Skull, fraudulent skull bones which researchers long
believed to be the ‘missing link’ in human history.) The second is to examine, in
written evidence in the form of historic documents etc., the authenticity of the
contents. What is the meaning of what is written, and how accurate is it? For
example, many authentic medieval texts are known to be wildly inaccurate and
vague in their descriptions of events.
According to Gottschalk (1951), the questions of where, which, when and what
are crucial in identifying the four aspects of historical research which determine the
scope of a study, as shown in Box 1.6.
Box 1.6 Aspects of historical research that determine scope
1 Where the events took place.
2 Which people were involved.
3 When the events occurred.
4 What kind of human activity was involved.
Figure 1.2 The first is to ascertain whether the artefact
to be studied is genuine
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Research and the Research Problem 11
The degree to which an aspect is studied can be varied, i.e. the number of human
activities examined can be increased or decreased, the time-span covered can be
extended or contracted etc. It must be remembered that the mere collection of
historic facts, or the setting up of chronologies of events, does not constitute
research.Although these are a necessary part of historical research, an interpretation
of the meanings and an assessment of the significance of the events are required.
Historic research is not based purely on scientific method. For instance, the data
used are seldom based on direct observation or experimentation. But it should
share many of the disciplines of scientific method, such as objectivity and the desire
to minimize bias and distortion, the use of scientific techniques such as chemical
and radioactive analysis, and statistics. The problem for historians tends to be the
paucity of information, while scientists are often overwhelmed by it!
All research students, whatever their chosen field of study, have to undertake a
review of the literature. This is a study of what has been done and written in the
past, and so the principles of historical research can be seen to be of direct relevance
to this part of their work.
Comparative research is often used together with historical research. Researchers
compare people’s experience of different societies, either between times in the past
or in parallel situations in the present. These studies can be on the macro level, e.g.
studying the role of revolutions in class struggle, or on the micro level, e.g. individ-
ual experiences in different types of marriage.
It is often easier to understand phenomena when they are compared with similar
phenomena from another time or place. Culture and society rely heavily on what
has gone before and often use references from the past to justify the present. The
constitution, the tax system, social mores are all rooted in their own histories.
Similarly, place also determines that phenomena develop differently.
The study and comparison of differences help to reveal the origins and develop-
ment of social phenomena, locating them in a certain time and place, and thus
defeating claims that they are universal and atemporal.
Many social theories are presented as if the generalizations that they embody are
valid for all times and places, when in fact they were arrived at on the basis of
limited contemporary Western experience (Llobera, 1998, p. 74).
We can also learn by making comparisons both with the past and with experi-
ences elsewhere. It would be foolish for politicians to introduce, say, sweeping
changes to the electoral system, without carefully studying the effects of such
changes in the past and in other situations.
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12 Your Research Project
Experimental research (described below), where the researcher can artificially
control causal factors, is not really possible in social research. However, the idea is
put forward that history and comparison can often supply the researcher with what
is a natural experiment. According to Mill’s method of agreement (one of his five
‘methods of experimental enquiry’ devised in the nineteenth century), ‘If two or
more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance
in common, the circumstances in which alone all the instances agree is the cause (or
effect) of the given phenomenon’ (1973, p. 390). Using this test it is possible to
compare the suggested causes of several instances of a phenomenon (e.g. an indus-
trial strike) and eliminate those that are not present in all instances as being
non-essential to the occurrence of the phenomenon. For example, reasons for strik-
ing could be trade union power struggles, poor working conditions, resistance to
change, low pay, unfair labour relations etc. If, say, one cause only is present in all
cases, e.g. unfair labour relations, then one could conclude that this is likely to be
the determining cause. One could then check to see if a situation where unfair
labour relations did not result in a strike could be found. If not, then this would
support the foregoing conclusion.
This kind of comparative exercise to explore and test causal factors is an emblem
of good research of this type, and helps to overcome the fact that the researcher has
no control over the available variables.
Instead of examining record or artefacts, descriptive research relies on observation as
a means of collecting data. It attempts to examine situations in order to establish what
is the norm, i.e. what can be predicted to happen again under the same circumstances.
‘Observation’can take many forms. Depending on the type of information sought,
people can be interviewed, questionnaires distributed, visual records made, even
sounds and smells recorded. The important point is that the observations are written
down or recorded in some way, in order that they can be subsequently analysed. It
is important that the data so collected are organized and presented in a clear and
systematic way, so that the analysis can result in valid and accurate conclusions.
The scale of the research is influenced by two major factors, identified in Box 1.7.
Box 1.7 Influence on scale of descriptive research
1 The level of complexity of the survey.
2 The scope of the survey.
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Research and the Research Problem 13
For example, seeking relationships between specific events inevitably requires a
more complex survey technique than aiming merely to describe the nature of exist-
ing conditions. Likewise, surveying a large number of cases over a wide area will
require greater resources than a small, local survey.
In order both to save on unnecessary work and to give accurate information on
the subject of your research, the sample of people or events surveyed (technically
called the population) must be carefully chosen and delineated. To do this, it is
necessary to be aware of the precise subject focus of the research so that specific
objectives can be formulated.
As descriptive research depends on human observations and responses, there is a
danger that distortion of the data can occur. This can be caused, among other ways,
by inadvertently including biased questions in questionnaires or interviews, or
through selective observation of events. Although bias cannot be wholly eliminated,
an awareness of its existence and likely extent is essential.
The information sought in correlation research is expressed not in the form of
artefacts, words or observations, but in numbers. While historical and descriptive
approaches are predominantly forms of qualitative research, analytical survey or
correlation research is principally quantitative. ‘Correlation’ is another word to
describe the measure of association or the relationships between two phenomena.
In order to find meaning in the numerical data, the techniques of statistics are
used. What kind of statistical tests are used to analyse the data depends very much
on the nature of the data.
This form of quantitative research can be broadly classified into two types of
studies, as shown in Box 1.8.
Box 1.8 Types of quantitative studies
1 Relational studies.
2 Prediction studies.
The first is an investigation of possible relationships between phenomena to estab-
lish if a correlation exists and, if so, its extent. This exploratory form of research is
carried out particularly where little or no previous work has been done, and its
outcomes can form the basis for further investigations.
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14 Your Research Project
Prediction studies tend to be carried out in research areas where correlations are
already known. This knowledge is used to predict possible future behaviour or
events, on the basis that if there has been a strong relationship between two or more
characteristics or events in the past, then these should exist in similar circumstances
in the future, leading to predictable outcomes.
In order to produce statistically significant results, quantitative research demands
data from a large number of cases. Greater numbers of cases tend to produce more
reliable results; 20–30 is considered to be about the minimum, though this depends
on the type of statistical test applied. The data, whatever their original character,
must be converted into numbers.
One of the advantages of correlation research is that it allows for the measure-
ment of a number of characteristics (technically called variables) and their relation-
ships simultaneously. Particularly in social science, many variables contribute to a
particular outcome (e.g. satisfaction with housing depends on many factors).
Another advantage is that, unlike other research approaches, it produces a measure
of the amount of relationship between the variables being studied. It also, when
used in prediction studies, gives an estimation of the probable accuracy of the
predictions made. One limitation to what can be learned from correlation research
is that, while the association of variables can be established, the cause and effect
relationships are not revealed.
Experimental research differs from the other research approaches noted above
through its greater control over the objects of its study. The researcher strives to
isolate and control every relevant condition that determines the events investigated,
so as to observe the effects when the conditions are manipulated. Chemical experi-
ments in a laboratory represent one of the purest forms of this research type.
At its simplest, an experiment involves making a change in the value of one
variable – called the independent variable – and observing the effect of that change on
another variable – called the dependent variable (Cohen and Manion, 1994, p. 164).
Thus, the most important characteristic of the experimental approach is that it
deals with the phenomenon of ‘cause and effect’.
However, the actual experiment is only a part of the research process. There are
several planned stages in experimental research. When the researcher has estab-
lished that the study is amenable to experimental methods, a prediction (technically
called a hypothesis) of the likely cause and effect patterns of the phenomenon has
to be made. This allows decisions to be made as to what variables are to be tested
and how they are to be controlled and measured. This stage, called the design of the
experiment, must also include the choice of relevant types of test and methods of
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Research and the Research Problem 15
analysing the results of the experiments (usually by statistical analysis). Pre-tests are
then usually carried out to detect any problems in the experimental procedure.
Only after this is the experiment proper carried out. The procedures decided
upon must be rigorously adhered to and the observations meticulously recorded
and checked. Following the successful completion of the experiment, the important
task – the whole point of the research exercise – is to process and analyse the data
and to formulate an interpretation of the experimental findings.
Figure 1.3 Not all experimental research has to, or
even can, take place in a laboratory
Not all experimental research has to, or even can, take place in a laboratory. The
experimental methods used must take account of how much it is possible to control
the variables. Writers of textbooks on research have classified experimental designs
in different ways. As an example, Campbell and Stanley (1966) make their catego-
rization into four classes as shown in Box 1.9, which can be regarded as a useful
starting point for discussing their different characteristics.
Box 1.9 Classes of experiments
2 True experimental.
4 Correlation and ex post facto.
Pre-experimental designs are unreliable and primitive experimental methods in
which assumptions are made despite the lack of essential control of variables. An
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16 Your Research Project
example of this is the supposition that, faced with the same stimulus, all samples will
behave identically to the one tested, despite possible differences between the samples.
True experimental designs are those that rigorously check the identical nature of
the groups before testing the influence of a variable on a sample of them in control-
led circumstances. Parallel tests are made on identical samples (control samples)
which are not subjected to the variable.
In quasi-experimental designs, not all of the conditions of true experimental
design can be fulfilled. The nature of the shortcomings is however recognized, and
steps are taken to minimize them or predict a level of reliability of the results. The
most common case is when a group is tested for the influence of a variable and
compared with a non-identical group with known differences (control group)
which has not been subjected to the variable. Another, in the absence of a control
group, is repeated testing over time of one group, with and without the variable
(i.e. the same group acts as its own control at different times).
Correlation design looks for cause and effect relationships between two sets of
data, while ex post facto designs turn experimentation into reverse, and attempt to
interpret the nature of the cause of a phenomenon by the observed effects. Both of
these forms of research result in conclusions which are difficult to prove and they
rely heavily on logic and inference.
This is a descriptive type of research specifically designed to deal with complex
social issues. It aims to move beyond ‘just getting the facts’ in order to make sense
of the myriad human, political, social, cultural and contextual elements involved.
The latest form of this type of research, named by Guba and Lincoln (1989) as
fourth-generation evaluation, has, according to them, six properties, as in Box 1.10.
Box 1.10 Properties of evaluation research
1 The evaluation outcomes are not intended to represent ‘the way things really
are, or how they work’, but present the meaningful constructions which the
individual actors or groups of actors create in order to make sense of the situa-
tions in which they find themselves.
2 In representing these constructions, it is recognized that they are shaped to a
large extent by the values held by the constructors. This is a very important
consideration in a value-pluralistic society, where groups rarely share a
common value system.
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Research and the Research Problem 17
3 These constructions are seen to be inextricably linked to the particular physical,
psychological, social and cultural contexts within which they are formed and
to which they refer. These surrounding conditions, however, are themselves
dependent on the constructions of the actors which endow them with
parameters, features and limits.
4 It is recognized that the evaluation of these constructions is highly depend-
ent on the involvement and viewpoint of the evaluators in the situation
5 This type of research stresses that evaluation should be action-oriented,define
a course that can be practically followed, and stimulate the carrying out of its
recommendations. This usually requires a stage of negotiation with all the
6 Due regard should be given to the dignity, integrity and privacy of those
involved at any level, and those who are drawn into the evaluation should be
welcomed as equal partners in every aspect of design, implementation, inter-
pretation and resulting action. (Guba and Lincoln, 1989, pp. 8–11)
There are a range of different approaches or evaluation models. Two of them are
systems analysis and responsive evaluation.
Systems analysis is a holistic type of research, which reverses the three-stage order
of thinking which is typical of scientific enquiry, i.e. breaking the problem or
phenomenon to be investigated down into researchable parts, then separately
evaluating the parts, and finally aggregating these evaluations into an explanation
of the whole. In systems analysis, there are also three stages, but they start from
appraising the whole, as in Box 1.11.
Box 1.11 Stages of systems analysis
1 Identifying an encompassing whole (system) of which the phenomenon or
problem is a part.
2 Evaluating the behaviour or properties of the encompassing whole.
3 Explaining the behaviour or properties of the phenomenon or problem in
terms of its roles or functions within the encompassing whole.
Systems analysis lends itself to creating understanding in complicated situations,
particularly those involving people and organizations; such problems are often
referred to as ‘messes’ because of their indeterminate nature and large number of
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18 Your Research Project
interconnected variables. Modelling and diagramming are two of the principal
techniques used to describe systems.
In the responsive evaluation model a series of investigative steps is undertaken in
order to evaluate how responsive a programme is (e.g. an advertising campaign, a
new degree course or an experimental traffic scheme) to all those taking part in it.
Typical steps are shown in Box 1.12.
Box 1.12 Steps in responsive evaluation
•• Data collection: identifying issues from the people directly involved in the
programme;identifying further issues from the programme documents;observing
how the programme is actually working.
•• Evaluation:the design of an evaluation based on the data collected and reporting
•• Suggesting changes:informing the participants of the findings in ways specifically
designed for each type of audience.
A common purpose of evaluation research is to examine programmes or the
working of projects from the point of view of levels of awareness, costs and benefits,
cost-effectiveness, attainment of objectives and quality assurance. The results are
generally used to prescribe changes to improve and develop the situation, but in
some cases might be limited to descriptions giving a better understanding of the
programme (Robson, 1993, pp. 170–9).
This can be seen as related to experimental research, though it is carried out in the
real world rather than in the context of a closed experimental system.A basic defini-
tion of this type of research is: ‘a small scale intervention in the functioning of the
real world and a close examination of the effects of such an intervention’ (Cohen
and Manion, 1994, p. 186).
Its main characteristic is that it is essentially an ‘on the spot’ procedure, princi-
pally designed to deal with a specific problem evident in a particular situation. No
attempt is made to separate a particular feature of the problem from its context in
order to study it in isolation. Constant monitoring and evaluation are carried out,
and the conclusions from the findings are applied immediately, and further
monitored. Action research depends mainly on observation and behavioural data.
As a practical form of research,aimed at a specific problem and situation and with little
or no control over independent variables, it cannot fulfil the scientific requirement for
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Research and the Research Problem 19
generalizability. In this sense, despite its exploratory nature, it is the antithesis of
In this approach, the researcher is interested in how the subjects of the research
theorize about their own behaviour rather than imposing a theory from outside.
The test of success is that the subjects themselves recognize the description of
familiar features of their culture. As a process of studying human behaviour,
according to Goetz and LeCompte (1984), the ethnogenic approach has three
characteristic features: it aims to represent a view of the world as it is structured by
the participants under observation by eliciting phenomenological data; it takes
place in the undisturbed natural settings of the subjects; and it attempts to repre-
sent the totality of the social, cultural and economic situation, regarding the context
to be equally important as the action (Uzzell, 1995, pp. 304–5).
This is a difficult form of research for several reasons. As so much of culture is
hidden and rarely made explicit, the data being sought by the researcher need to be
pursued by delving deep into the language and behaviour of the subjects of the study,
and of the surrounding conditions in which they live. There is an ever-present
danger that the cultural background and assumptions of the researcher will unduly
influence the interpretations and descriptions made on the basis of the data collected.
In addition to this, there can be confusions produced by the use of language and the
different meanings which may be given to words by the respondents and researcher.
The accounts of events in the past can never capture the infinite contents of
history. Historical knowledge, however well authenticated, is always subject to the
biases and memory of its chronicler. It is also very difficult for one living in the
twenty-first century to understand a world outside the framework of contemporary
beliefs, values and attitudes.
Apart from these problems of interpretation of data, there is the fact that when
working in a naturalistic setting, with social groups engaged in everyday activities,
it is impossible to repeat the situation in order to verify the research. Social reality
is not stable: a thing never ‘is’, as it is always changing into something else. It is
therefore of great importance that multi-method and confirmatory data sources are
used to capture the moment.
Feminist research is a particular model of social research which involves theory and
analysis that highlight the differences between men’s and women’s lives. It claims
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20 Your Research Project
paradigms usually ignore the partiality of researchers’ ideas about the social world.
Value neutrality is impossible as no researcher practises research outside his or her
system of values and no methods of social science can guarantee that knowledge is
originated independently of values.
No specific methods are seen to be particularly feminist, but the methodology
used is informed by theories of gender relations. However, feminist research is
undertaken with a political commitment to the identification and transformation
of gender relations. This tends to reveal that this form of research is not uniquely
political, but rather exposes all methods of social research to be political.
Many of the prevailing theoretical debates (e.g. postmodernism, post-structuralism)
are concerned with the subjects of language and cultural interpretation, with the
result that these issues have frequently become central to sociological studies. The
need has therefore arisen for methodologies that allow analysis of cultural texts
to be compared, replicated, disproved and generalized. From the late 1950s,
language has been analysed from several basic viewpoints: the structural proper-
ties of language (notably Chomsky, Sacks, Schegloff), language as an action in its
contextual environment (notably Wittgenstein, Austin and Searle) and sociolin-
guistics and the ‘ethnography of speaking’ (Hymes, Bernstein, Labov and many
However, the meaning of the term ‘cultural texts’ has been broadened from that
of purely literary works to that of the many manifestations of cultural exchange, be
they formal such as opera, TV news programmes, cocktail parties etc., or informal
such as how people dress or converse. The main criterion for cultural texts is that
one should be able to ‘read’ some meanings into the phenomena. Texts can there-
fore include tactile, visual and aural aspects, even smells and tastes. Three
approaches to the consistent interpretation of cultural texts can be mentioned here
briefly: content analysis, semiotics and discourse analysis.
Content analysis was developed from the mid 1900s, chiefly in America, and is a
rather positivistic attempt to apply order to the subjective domain of cultural
meaning. A quantitative approach is taken by counting the frequency of phenom-
ena within a case in order to gauge its importance in comparison with other cases.
As a simple example, in a study of racial equality one could compare the frequency
of the appearance of black people in television advertisements in various European
countries. Much importance is given to careful sampling and rigorous categorization
and coding in order to achieve a level of objectivity, reliability and generalizability
and the development of theories.
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Research and the Research Problem 21
Semiotics takes an almost opposite approach by attempting to gain a deep
understanding of meanings by the interpretation of single elements of text rather
than to generalize through a quantitative assessment of components. The approach
is derived from the linguistic studies of Saussure, in which he saw meanings being
derived from their place in a system of signs. Words are only meaningful in their
relationship with other words, e.g. we only know the meaning of ‘horse’ if we can
compare it with different animals with different features.
This approach was further developed by Barthes and others to extend the analysis
of linguistic-based signs to more general sign systems in any sets of objects:
semiotics as a method focuses our attention on to the task of tracing the meanings of
things back through the systems and codes through which they have meaning and
make meaning. (Slater, 1995, p. 240)
Hence the meanings of a red traffic light can be seen as embedded in the system
of traffic laws, colour psychology, codes of conduct and convention etc. (which
could explain why in China a red traffic light means ‘go’). A strong distinction is
therefore made between denotation (what we perceive) and connotation (what we
read into) when analysing a sign.
Discourse analysis studies the way that people communicate with each other
through language within a social setting. Language is not seen as a neutral medium
for transmitting information; it is bedded in our social situation and helps to create
and recreate it. Language shapes our perception of the world, our attitudes and
identities. While a study of communication can be simply broken down into four
elements (sender, message code, receiver and channel), or alternatively into a set of
signs with both syntactical (i.e. orderly or systematic) organization and semantic
(i.e. meaningful and significant) relationships, such simplistic analysis does not
reflect the power of discourse.
It is the triangular relationship between discourse, cognition and society that
provides the focus for this form of analysis (van Dijk, 1994, p. 122). Two central
themes can be identified: the interpretive context in which the discourse is set, and
the rhetorical organization of the discourse. The former concentrates on analysing
the social context, for example the power relations between the speakers (perhaps
due to age or seniority) or the type of occasion where the discourse takes place (at
a private meeting or a party). The latter investigates the style and scheme of the
argument in the discourse, for example a sermon will aim to convince the listener
in a very different way to a lawyer’s presentation in court.
Post-structuralist social theory, and particularly the work of the French theorist
Michel Foucault, has been influential in the development of this analytical approach
to language.According to Foucault, discourses are‘practices that systematically form
the objects of which they speak’ (1972, p. 43). He could thus demonstrate how
discourse is used to make social regulation and control appear natural.
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22 Your Research Project
Space does not allow the description of other types of research. Different disci-
plines,such as philosophy,theology and metaphysics,have types of research which
are specifically suited to their purposes,but are beyond the scope of this book.It is
important to point out that the above types of research are not generally mutually
exclusive in a research project. More than one of these approaches may be
relevantly used in order to achieve the outcomes aimed at in the research.
The Research Process
Whichever type of research you choose, it will be useful to understand something
of the process of research. This can help you to form a framework for your activities.
Figure 1.4 Sitting down to write a 30,000 to 60,000
word thesis or research report is no simple task
Sitting down to write a 30,000 to 60,000 word thesis or research report is no
simple task. The research on which it is based does not develop in a linear fashion,
any more than does the writing of the report itself. So how does one go about doing
research? You will have undoubtedly noticed by now that the acquisition of knowl-
edge and the questioning of what to do with it is a complex process. From the numer-
ous books on research methods, three interpretations of how the activities of research
interweave with each other have been selected, each viewing the process at a different
level of detail.
A simple summary of the relationships between five main elements of the
research process can be mapped (Diagram 1.1). This compact diagram stresses
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Research and the Research Problem 23
the circularity of the process and the central role of research theory. Is it clear to
you how progress is achieved, and at which point you can enter the system? One
should point out that this diagram makes research look a very tidy and logical
process, but in reality you may find that it involves guesses, intuition and intel-
The spiral diagram that I have developed from the rather two-dimensional circu-
lar representation by Leedy (1989, p. 9) illustrates even more strongly the cyclical
nature of the research process (Diagram 1.2). The division of the segments clearly
indicates where you get on board. Notice how each turn through the spiral repeats
the basic process. The knowledge gained and questions raised at each turn provide
the basis for the next cycle.
•• To view research this way is to invest it with a dynamic quality that is its true
nature – a far cry from the conventional view,which sees research as a one-time
act – static, self-contained, and an end in itself … Every researcher soon learns
that genuine research creates more problems than it resolves. Such is the
nature of the discovery of truth. (1989, p. 9)
The diagram developed from that of Newman (1989) concentrates on the first
stages in the process. It shows a clear direction in sequence of time, and displays
how the process involves successive widening and narrowing of knowledge
bands (Diagram 1.3). As each level of knowledge is achieved, the subject area is
Diagram 1.1 The research process
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24 Your Research Project
narrowed down to become more specific, followed by subsequent widening of
knowledge as that specific area is researched in detail. This sequence of moving
into more specific, yet more widely researched subject areas could be extended
right through the project, culminating in the specifically narrow conclusions
and finally widening out into recommendations which are of more general
Sketch the continuation of Diagram 1.3 using the following stages,and show what
gets rejected every time the subject is narrowed down:
•• definition of problem area
•• research into area
•• definition of research problem
•• investigation into relevant concepts, theories and research methods
•• research proposal
•• data-gathering and analysis
•• findings and conclusions
Analysis of data,
Diagram 1.2 The research process (Leedy, 1989, p. 9)
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Research and the Research Problem 25
An alternative way of looking at it is as a series of stages that are interrelated and are
sometimes revisited in an iterative fashion during the project (see Diagram 1.4).
The teaching of research methods usually relates to these stages and reflects the
practical nature of the subject.
To be able to design and plan your own research project you will have to use your
understanding of the process of research.The steps to take in planning the project
will be explained later in this chapter.
of research Theoretical subject(s)
area with relatively
constant but unknown
guidance by tutors
Consideration of interests
of research found
to be unsuitable
and discussionExpansion of knowledge
within thesis area
Diagram 1.3 The research process (Newman, 1989, p. 28)
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Research and the Research Problem 27
Desirable characteristics of research findings
There is an untold mass of information in the world. By doing research, you will be
adding to this plethora of information. What is it that will make your efforts worth-
while? What should the characteristics of your findings be to make your contribu-
tion valuable? Reynolds (1971) identified four desirable characteristics of scientific
knowledge which we can use as a good guide and as a basis for discussion, as shown
in Box 1.13.
Box 1.13 Desirable characteristics of scientific knowledge
•• Intersubjectivity (meaning)
•• Intersubjectivity (logical rigour)
•• Empirical relevance
The common thread between these is that the findings should be relevant to a wider
sphere than the specific cases in your research, and that they should be based on a
research process that is both accessible to and understandable by others. It is worth
considering these characteristics in more detail.
The characteristic of abstractness is independence from a specific time and
place. Research findings are useful if they can be applied in other situations, and can
lead to the development of general theories. To discover the causes of a particular
phenomenon that occurred in a particular time at a particular place is of little
general value if the knowledge gained is not relevant to any other phenomena at
different times and in different places. There are two reasons for this.
First, no future predictions about future events can be made using this knowl-
edge, as the phenomenon can only be seen as a unique historical event. As seen
above, one of the important objectives of research is to provide predictions about
the future. Resulting from this lack of predictability is the inability to affect any
control over similar future events.
Secondly, by being restricted to a phenomenon in a particular place, it will be
impossible to generalize from the results of this discovery to events which happen
There are cases where the study of a particular event is both useful and unavoid-
able, for instance in historical and ethnographic research. Historians are unlikely to
feel competent to make predictions of future events (e.g. election results) on the
basis of historical studies. The main aim of this kind of research is to analyse,
explain and gain a sense of understanding. With a better understanding of a social
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28 Your Research Project
phenomenon, interventions to alleviate problems are likely to be more effective and
have more predictable outcomes. Similarly, in investigations following an accident,
the findings aim to explain events, understand their causes and invite predictions:
for example, a railway signalling fault discovered in an enquiry may cause more
accidents if it is not rectified.
Intersubjectivity may be understood in two senses. First, to ensure that everyone
has the same understanding of words and events there must be agreement as to the
meaning of concepts used in statements. This intersubjectivity of meaning, i.e.
agreement between people about meaning, is attained by precise definition of
concepts. Secondly, any statement describes the relationship of at least two concepts.
Often, many connected statements are used in a research project to make predic-
tions, or to explain a theory. To avoid ambiguity and disagreement about the appro-
priate combination of statements to use, logical systems have been evolved such as
mathematics, statistics, symbolic logic etc. These are used to promote intersubjec-
tivity, i.e. agreement about use, at a logical level.
If scientists cannot agree on the predictions derived from combinations of state-
ments, then there can be no agreement as to the usefulness of the statements for
predicting or explaining phenomena. (Reynolds, 1971, p. 17)
Most of science and all technology is based on empirical foundations, i.e. built on,
or guided by, the results of observation and experimentation. The basic purpose of
a scientific theory is to explain what causes an event or why one event is associated
with another. The basis for these explanations is the recorded measurements made
by the researcher of the events. Empirical relevance is a measure of the correspond-
ence between a particular theory and what is taken to be objective empirical data,
which enable other scientists to verify the results of the research for themselves. The
greater the relevance of the empirical data, the more confidence can be put in the
veracity of the theory.
Starting your own Research
The common element in student academic research at every level, from under-
graduate to doctorate, is that they are, some more than others, exercises in the doing
of research. The student will have to demonstrate knowledge of research theory and
methods and the ability to apply these in an appropriate and successful manner
relevant to the chosen topic. You might consider that the topic itself serves merely
as a vehicle in order to make this demonstration possible. That is perhaps too
cynical a view. The topic must be the driving force behind the project and, particu-
larly at PhD level, the research must make some contribution to knowledge about
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Research and the Research Problem 29
the subject. But without a proper understanding of research and its application, this
knowledge will not be discovered.
But perhaps you are embarking on a research project as part of your work. Most
of the issues that you will face will be similar to those faced by academic researchers.
The major differences might be the greater resources available to you, the lack of
access to supervision and advice, and the stresses of work in a professional context.
What will be the same, however, is the requirement that the research has clear and
achievable goals and is carried out efficiently using the appropriate research methods.
Finding and defining a research problem
It should be evident from what you have read so far that in order to carry out
research, you need to start by identifying a question that demands an answer, or a
need that requires a resolution, or a riddle that seeks a solution, which can be devel-
oped into a research problem: the heart of the research project.
Students starting their research degree course, and practitioners wishing to
become involved in research, tend to come from widely different backgrounds, and
are equipped with varied amounts of knowledge and degrees of experience in their
chosen field of study. While most are fairly sure of the subject they want to research,
many are uncertain of the exact problem they wish to address.
One of the first tasks, therefore, on the way to deciding on the detailed topic of
research is to find a question, an unresolved controversy, a gap in knowledge or an
unrequited need within the chosen subject. This search requires an awareness of
current issues in the subject and an inquisitive and questioning mind.Although you
will find that the world is teeming with questions and unresolved problems, not
every one of these is a suitable subject for research. So what features should you
Figure 1.5 The world is teeming with questions and
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30 Your Research Project
look for which could lead you to a suitable research problem? Box 1.14 lists the
Box 1.14 Features of a suitable research problem
1 It should be of great interest to you. You will have to spend many months
investigating the problem. A lively interest in the subject will be an invaluable
incentive to persevere.
2 The problem should be significant.It is not worth time and effort investigating
a trivial problem or repeating work that has already been done elsewhere.
3 The problem should be delineated.Consider the time you have to complete the
work, and the depth to which the problem will be addressed.You can cover a
wide field only superficially, and the more you restrict the field, the more
detailed the study can be.You should also consider the cost of necessary travel
and other expenses.
4 You should be able to obtain the information required. You cannot carry out
research if you fail to collect the relevant information needed to tackle your
problem,either because you lack access to documents or other sources,and/or
because you have not obtained the cooperation of individuals or organizations
essential to your research.
5 You should be able to draw conclusions related to the problem. The point of
asking a question is to find an answer.The problem should be one to which the
research can offer some solution, or at least the elimination of some false
6 You should be able to state the problem clearly and concisely. A precise, well
thought out and fully articulated sentence, understandable by anyone, should
normally clearly be able to explain just what the problem is.
It is not easy to decide on and define a research problem, and you will not be
expected to do so immediately. The important thing, at this stage, is to know what
you are looking for, and to explore your subject for suitable possibilities.
The problem can be generated either by an initiating idea, or by a perceived
problem area. For example, investigation of ‘rhythmic patterns in settlement
planning’ is the product of an idea that there are such things as rhythmic patterns
in settlement plans, even if no one has detected them before. This kind of idea will
then need to be formulated more precisely in order to develop it into a researchable
problem.We are surrounded by problems connected with society, the built environ-
ment, education etc., many of which can readily be perceived. Take, for example,
social problems such as poverty, crime, unsuitable housing and uncomfortable
workplaces, technical problems such as design deficiencies, organizational problems
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Research and the Research Problem 31
such as business failures and bureaucratic bungles, and many subjects where there
may be a lack of knowledge that prevents improvements being made, for example,
the influence of parents on a child’s progress at school, the relationship between
designers and clients. Obviously, it is not difficult to find problem areas. The diffi-
culty lies in choosing an area that contains possible specific research problems
suitable for the subject of a research project or degree.
Some common mistakes
It is worth warning you at this stage of some common mistakes made when a
research problem is chosen. These mistakes arise mainly from the failure to grasp
the necessity for the interpretation of data in the research project. Box 1.15 shows
four common mistakes.
Box 1.15 Common mistakes when choosing a research problem
1 Making the choice of a problem an excuse to fill in gaps in your own knowl-
edge.We all welcome the chance to learn more for ourselves, but the point of
research is not just personal enlightenment, but making a contribution to
public knowledge. Anyone can find a problem that involves the gathering and
duplication of information, but it requires an additional effort to find one that
requires data to be analysed and conclusions to be drawn which are of wider
2 Formulating a problem that involves merely a comparison of two or more sets of
data. A comparison of sets of data or records might fill up many pages (e.g. the
average age of marriage through the centuries), but without any effort to
reveal something new from the information, there is no research activity. The
problem should clearly state the objectives behind making the comparison.
3 Setting a problem in terms of finding the degree of correlation between two
sets of data. Comparing two sets of data to reveal an apparent link between
them (e.g. the average age of marriage and the size of families) might be inter-
esting,but the result is only a number,and does not reveal a causal connection.
This number, or coefficient of correlation, reveals nothing about the nature of
the link, and invites the question – so what?
4 Devising a problem to which the answer can be only yes or no. In order to
improve on our knowledge of the world we need to know why things are as
they are and how they work. A yes–no solution to a problem skirts the issues
by avoiding the search for the reasons why yes or no is the answer, and the
implications which the answer has.
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32 Your Research Project
Consider the following short sentences claiming to be research problems and
decide whether they are researchable,and are a feasible proposition for an individ-
ual student, like yourself, to undertake for a research degree or as a research
project. Respond first with the answers‘yes’,‘no’or‘possibly’.Then, if you think that
the research problem is not viable or will present difficulties, briefly give your
1 An enquiry into the history of the building of the Channel Tunnel.
2 A study to compare the results in school history exams for 16-year-olds
throughout Europe between 1970 and 1980.
3 The effects of parent unemployment on their children’s attitude to
4 The relationship between temperature, humidity and air movement in the
cooling effect of sweating on the human skin.
5 The effects of using glass of different thickness and qualities in single, double
and triple glazing.
6 What factors must be evaluated and what is their relative importance,
in constructing a formula for allotting grants to university students in
7 An analysis of the influence of Palladio’s villa designs on large country houses
built in Britain in the eighteenth century.
8 Whether the advantages of foreign borrowing by Third World countries
outweigh the disadvantages.
9 The composition of prefabricated elements of buildings in the construction of
multi-storey car parks in tight urban situations in large conurbations of the
United States of America during the 1970s.
10 A study of how hospital patients’ recovery is affected by the colour of their
surroundings and of how they react to the effects of different light levels after
11 An enquiry to identify and evaluate the causes of ‘sick building syndrome’ in
order to indicate possible methods of avoiding the occurrence of this
‘syndrome’in new buildings.
12 The impact of local tax and exaction policies on the London commercial office
13 Economic implications of the programme of rental increases and housing
sales in China.
14 How the career plans of school leavers compare with their subsequent careers
in terms of self-satisfaction and self-adjustment, and what information the
analysis of the difference between planned and realized careers provides to
assist in career planning.
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Research and the Research Problem 33
As you can see, it requires a good deal of thought and knowledge of your chosen
topic of study in order to isolate a suitable research problem. Unless you have
come to do your research with a particular detailed problem already identified
(probably following on from some previous research which you have done), you
will need to narrow down to a specific problem from a wider problem area.
Aids to locating and analysing problems
Booth et al. (1995, p. 36) suggest that the process for focusing on the formulation
of your research problem is as shown in Box 1.16. As you can see, they recommend
that, apart from simply narrowing down the object of study, you should carefully
scrutinize the resultant topic in the light of what you have found out in your
Box 1.16 How to focus on a research problem
1 Find an interest in a broad subject area (problem area).
2 Narrow the interest to a plausible topic.
3 Question the topic from several points of view.
4 Define a rationale for your project.
Initially, it is useful to define no more than a problem area, rather than a specific
research problem, within the general body of knowledge that interests you, e.g.
housing and homelessness, parks in cities, building regulations and historic conserva-
tion. Your aim should be to subsequently narrow down the scope of the idea or
problem until it becomes a highly specific research problem. This narrowing process
will require a lot of background reading in order to discover what has been written
about the subject already, what research has been carried out, where further work
needs to be done and where controversial issues still remain.
You should keep in mind three questions when engaged in the preliminary explora-
tory work.The first is,what is your motivation for doing the research?A major motivation
should be a curiosity about the research results.Another will undoubtedly be the fulfil-
ment of the requirements of a research degree. Learning about the process of research –
practical knowledge that can be used in the future – is also likely to be a motivation.
The choice of problem is likely to be influenced by these motivational factors.
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34 Your Research Project
The second question is, what relevant interest, experience or expertise do you bring
to bear on the subject? Obviously, interest in a subject is essential if you are to
concentrate happily on it for a year or more. Although experience or expertise in a
subject is not a prerequisite to doing research in that field, it does have an effect on
the preliminary and information-gathering stage of the work, as you will be familiar
with the literature and the potential problem areas. However, a ‘new light’ may be
cast on a subject by someone looking at it with ‘fresh eyes’.
The third question is, what are you going to produce? As a researcher, your priority
will be to produce a defendable thesis or useful research report within your time
limit. If you are a research student, you should check the requirements of your
university or college in the regulations issued about the nature of suitable research
topics. (It might be a good idea to do that now. You will find the information in the
latest university research degree regulations kept in the library. You should also be
issued with your own copy.) If you are doing a dissertation as part of a course, check
the course notes for guidance. If you are doing a funded research project, then you
will need to know the requirements of the likely funders or of the policy of the
organization for which you work.
Figure 1.6 What are you going to produce?
Initial literature review and defining the problem area
The objective of the initial review of the literature is to discover relevant material
published in the chosen field of study and to search for a suitable problem area.
Fox (1969) mentions two kinds of literature that should be reviewed. The first is
‘conceptual literature’. This is written by authorities on the subject you have in
mind, giving opinions, ideas, theories or experiences, and published in the form of
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Research and the Research Problem 35
books, articles and papers. The second is ‘research literature’, which gives accounts
and results of research that has been undertaken in the subject, often presented in
the form of papers and reports. Chapter 2 in this book tells you how you can effec-
tively carry out this search through the literature.
As every piece of research contributes only a small part to a greater body of
knowledge or understanding, researchers must be aware of the context within
which their research work is to be carried out. At this stage it is important to get an
overview of the subject, rather than knowledge in depth. This will provide you with
an understanding of the principal issues and problems or controversies, and the
opportunity to select a problem area within a frame of reference. Within this
problem area, it is important that you familiarize yourself with those aspects that
have already been well established by previous research, and are generally accepted
as true. These ‘truths’ can then be assumed to need no further proof, and the
research problem simply uses them. It is not possible for a researcher to question
absolutely everything in his/her investigations. Alternatively the research problem
can be in the form of a challenge to veracity of one or more of these ‘truths’.
Advances in wisdom are only made by building on the solid foundations of previ-
ous knowledge. Obviously, someone who is already familiar with the subject inves-
tigated will tend to be quicker to advance through this stage.
At this early stage in your research programme you are exploring your subject field
only to identify a problem area, and do not need to try to define your research
problem in any detail. All the same, I think it is useful to know what the next steps
will be so that you can see the direction in which you will be moving. This might
well help you to choose a problem area. The knowledge and techniques you will
require for defining your specific research problem in detail are explained in
Chapters 2–8 of this book.
Research problem definition
From the interest in the wider issues of the chosen subject, and after the selection of a
problem area, the next step is to define the problem more closely so that it becomes a
specific research problem, with all the characteristics already discussed. This stage
requires an enquiring mind, an eye for inconsistencies and inadequacies in current
theory, and a measure of imagination. It is often useful in identifying a specific problem
to pose a simple question, for example, ‘Does the presence of indoor plants affect
people’s frame of mind?’ or ‘How can prevention measures reduce vandalism?’ or ‘Can
planning and building regulations prevent the destruction of indigenous architecture?’
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36 Your Research Project
Such a question can provide a starting point for the formulation of a specific
research problem, whose conclusion should aim to answer the question. At this
stage, the nature of the question will give some indication of the type of research
approach (or approaches) that could be appropriate. Will it be a historical study or
a descriptive enquiry, an analysis of correlations or an experimental exercise, or a
combination of more than one of them? Seemingly simple questions are riddled
with ambiguities, which must be cleared up by careful definition. For example, in
the above questions, what does ‘frame of mind’ mean, what sort of ‘prevention
measures’ are envisaged, and does the question embrace all types of ‘indigenous
architecture’ everywhere? It is likely that the problem is too broad if you can state it
in less than half a dozen words. A few additional questions posed against each word
can help to delineate the problem – where, who, what, which, when? Break the
problem down into short sentences, not worrying at this stage about the overall
length of the problem statement. It is a useful trick to put each sentence on a
separate slip of paper, so that they can be put into order in different sequences.
When the best logical progression from sentence to sentence is achieved, the state-
ment can be edited into a more elegant form. (Chapter 4 deals in more detail with
the techniques of problem statement.)
While developing a specific research problem, keep in mind the skills you will
require to carry out the research posed by the problem. Fox (1969, p. 39) defines five
types of skill which are essential: research design, instrument development, data
collection, data analysis and research writing.
Designing research can be learned, in consultation with your tutor or supervisor
(just wait till Chapters 5 and 6). Instrument development is, however, a highly
specialized skill, so it is advisable to formulate the problem so that you can use
standardized or previously developed instruments. The skills required by data
collection techniques are generally readily acquired (introduced in Chapter 5),
though consideration must be given to the extent of data needed. Data analysis does
require specialist skills, which can be of a highly sophisticated nature (specialist
help is on hand when you get that far). It will definitely be worth your while to
consult your tutor or supervisor on the implications for data analysis that the
research problem might have. Skills in research writing will be developed in Chapter 7,
and by consultation with your tutors or supervisors over the next months (or years).
Careful consideration of these points will ensure that the planned research is
practicable and has a good chance of success.
Most research problems are difficult, or even impossible, to solve without breaking
them down into smaller problems. The short sentences devised during the problem
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Research and the Research Problem 37
formulation period can give a clue to the presence of sub-problems. Does one
aspect have to be researched before another aspect can be begun? For example, in
one of the research questions asked above – the kinds of prevention measures that
can be used against vandalism – how the measures can be employed and for what
types of vandalism they are suitable, will have to be examined. The sub-problems
should delineate the scope of the work and, taken together, should define the entire
problem to be tackled as summarized in the main problem.
Following on from their recommended steps for narrowing down the scope of
your study to one topic, as shown in Box 1.16, Booth et al. (1995, p. 40) elaborate
on how you can organize your questions to define the sub-problems by looking at
your topic from the four perspectives shown in Box 1.17. It is interesting to note
that the usefulness of the topic is also an issue that should be taken into account –
but does this exclude blue-sky research? I hope not!
Box 1.17 Questions used to define sub-problems
1 What are the parts of your topic and what larger whole is it a part of?
2 What is its history and what larger history is it a part of?
3 What kind of categories can you find in it, and to what larger categories of
things does it belong?
4 What good is it? What can you use it for?
Second review of literature
A more focused review of the literature follows the formulation of the research
problem. The purpose of this review is to learn about research already carried out
into one or more of the aspects of the research problem, as shown in Box 1.18.
Box 1.18 Purposes of a literature review
1 To summarize the results of previous research to form a foundation on which
to build your own research.
2 To collect ideas on how to gather data.
3 To investigate methods of data analysis.
4 To study instrumentation that has been used.
5 To assess the success of the various research designs of the studies already
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38 Your Research Project
A full introduction to the techniques of literature review, information storage and
information retrieval is given in Chapter 4.
In order to exercise what you have learned about the characteristics of the research
problem and how it should be presented, here is part of a research proposal written
by a postgraduate research student. It aimed to describe accurately and succinctly
the relevant background, the problem to be researched and its importance.
Obviously, you are not required at this stage to write anything as detailed as this
yourself.The point of this exercise is for you to examine this text to see how a research
problem can be extracted out of a context and defined and described in such a way
as to convince the reader that the project is both worthwhile and possible to carry out.
After reading the following short research proposal,check the report against the
1 Is the research problem clearly stated? What is it? Write it out. If it is not clear,
try to detect what it probably is and then summarize it.
2 Does the problem seem to arise naturally from the background information
and questions? Summarize the main points of the argument which lead up to
the problem.If you have difficulty finding the relevant background information
and argument, explain where you see the gaps.
3 Are any sub-problems stated? If so, what are they? Write them out. Do they
really form parts of the main problem?
4 Is the proposed research limited in scope? What are the limitations? (It will help
you if you think of different aspects of the research, e.g. time, place etc.)
5 Did the researcher state what type of research approach would be used? If so,
write a summary of the research activities to be undertaken.
6 Is there any indication of the importance of the study? Describe how, if at all,
this is conveyed.
7 Is there any reference to, or discussion of, related literature or studies by other
researchers? If so, which?
A Study of Group-living Accommodation for Young Physically Disabled People
The aims of this study are to investigate different forms of group-living accommo-
dation designed for people with physical disabilities; and to evaluate their effec-
tiveness in meeting requirements for independent living, particularly for young
severely disabled people.
The ethos behind segregation of disabled people has been that those who are
incapable of managing their own lives might reasonably be placed in institutions
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Research and the Research Problem 39
that can take over those responsibilities. Admission into such institutions has for a
long time implied, by circumstance or design, a relinquishment of certain rights,
most particularly that of independent living.
As distinctions between those who are dependent on others have become
more clear – the poor, sick, old and abandoned – so institutions and buildings,
such as workhouses, orphanages and asylums, have evolved to provide for them.
Their common ethos was segregation. After World War II, that acceptability of
segregated institutions was called into question and alternatives to institutional
living were sought for those dependent on others for their care.The response of
the caring institutions was to shift away from segregation and towards the
integration of people with disabilities into mainstream society. The underlying
problem for architects was how buildings would need to change to accommodate
this shift. Architects needed to devise a diversified range of buildings that
widened the options for independent living for people with differing degrees of
In the 1950s and 1960s new building forms such as sheltered and special needs
housing were developed,but these were predominantly for the elderly.For younger
disabled people there continued to be few alternatives between admission to an
institution or staying at home.
However, by 1970 new concepts were developed; most striking were young
disabled units (YDUs) for severely disabled people of working age who had to leave
Over 320 YDUs and similar buildings have been built in the last two decades,
providing places for 10,500 people.Some are built in the grounds of hospitals and
some in the community;they generally accommodate 30 residents with their own
bedroom and shared common facilities.Their objective has been to meet require-
ments for independent living, across the age range of residents, from school
leaving age to retirement. However, research on the effectiveness of these
schemes is sparse. Investigation so far suggests that their design has been more
successful at accommodating the needs of older residents and less successful at
accommodating the requirements for independent living of younger disabled
The focus of this study will therefore be to investigate the influences on different
YDU built forms, and evaluate their effectiveness in meeting the independent-
living needs and aspirations of the young people with severe disabilities who live
Indicators of independent living established early in the study will be used to
measure the effectiveness of independent living attained in the different building
types, all purpose-designed to wheelchair parameters. Data will be collected by
undertaking detailed multi-method surveys of different YDU-type group-living
schemes.The surveys will include detailed appraisal of plans and measurements of
buildings, observation of the building in use and structured interviews with
residents across the age range.
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40 Your Research Project
The findings of the study are intended to make an original contribution to
research in this area,and provide recommendations of practical value for the design
of independent-living schemes which set out to optimize the independence of
young people with severe physical disabilities.
(Proposal by David Bonnett – who successfully completed his PhD three years later.)
Are you finding it quicker to analyse a given text now? The example given above is
the first part of a research proposal for an MPhil with intention to transfer to a PhD.
What has been left out in this example is the detailed methodology, explaining
exactly how the research will be carried out. As already mentioned, you are not
expected to be able to write anything as detailed as that at this stage. However,
after Chapter 7, you should be able to write something comparable and this
extract gives you some idea of what you are aiming at.Of course,your subject may
be completely different, but the criteria listed above will be the same.
Planning a Research Project
The purpose of the research plan is to take the initial research problem and decide how
it will be researched. A clearly defined and expressed research problem is one impor-
tant prerequisite for evolving a research plan. Important facts to be considered when
designing the project are: available time, financial resources, facilities, availability of
data, possible methods of analysis, and your own developing skills as a researcher.
Remember that you do not have a team of researchers to support you, and that
you have only a few weeks to complete a dissertation, about one year to complete
an MPhil or about three years to complete a PhD. All other research projects are
similarly limited in their time-frame. There will be some hard choices to make;
however fascinating your subject and however important the expected outcomes, it
is essential to limit the area of your investigation and keep it within manageable
proportions. Keep in mind that working towards a research degree is also a training
exercise to develop research skills, and your thesis will finally demonstrate that you
have acquired them sufficiently.
Choosing a research strategy
What sort of research will you pursue? It is worth remembering the different overall
aims that could be at the centre of your project. Phillips and Pugh (1994, pp. 49–52)
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Research and the Research Problem 41
identified three basic aims of research, as shown in Box 1.19 and discussed in the
text that follows.
Box 1.19 Basic aims of research
•• Testing out
This kind of research delves into the unknown, tackling new problem issues or
topics. As little or no previous research has been done on those topics, it will be
impossible to delineate precisely the scope of the research or to predict its outcomes.
Because it will be in a relatively unexplored domain, a necessary part of the research
is to explore what existing theories, concepts and methodologies might be used or
adapted, or failing those, to devise new ones. It pushes out the boundaries of
knowledge in the anticipation that the outcomes will be of value.
A common feature of such research is that it makes generalizations from specific
instances. But how far are the generalizations valid? Testing out research explores
the validity of the generalizations in other circumstances, and tries to define their
limits. This basic scientific activity leads to the refinement of theories. There are a
host of opportunities in this approach: testing the generalizations in different
locations, under different social or physical conditions, in different contexts etc.
This type of research identifies a ‘real-life problem’. Its aim is to find possible
solutions to the problem by using techniques of systematic appraisal and analysis.
As ‘real-life problems’ tend to be complex, the study might involve several disci-
plines and a variety of methods, requiring a great deal of background knowledge.
Although it is possible to pursue this kind of research on a theoretical level,
commonly practical benefits flow from it. However, solutions are unlikely to be
obvious and clear-cut.
Which type of research lends itself best to gaining a research degree? Phillips and
Pugh (1994) pragmatically suggest that the safest option is to be recommended,
that is, the one with the fewest unknown factors. Testing out research, based on
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42 Your Research Project
known theories and established methods of testing, avoids the unpredictability
(though it might miss out on the excitement) of the other two research approaches.
It is probably better to keep your feet on the bottom until you are able to swim! You
will still have to introduce some new insights or methods into the subject to make
the research worthwhile (rather than just replication), and it can be argued that this
mainstream type of research will usefully produce more readily publishable and
quotable results than the other two types.
There are greater risks and unknowns in the exploratory and problem-solving
approaches. They undoubtedly require more expertise and experience on the part of
the researcher and demand the enthusiastic support of the supervisor. In such innova-
tive and original research, it is more difficult to achieve the authority in the subject
required for it to be publishable, which might, in turn, impede a career in research.
You should now think about your own research interest and reflect on which of the
above types of research might be considered to be appropriate for your own work.
Planning your projects
Any research project requires planning so that the researcher’s time is used
efficiently in pursuance of the research objectives. Much effort can be wasted and
frustration incurred by haphazard reading and collecting of notes and references,
Figure 1.7 Problem-solving type of research identifies
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Research and the Research Problem 43
sundry information and opinions. This form of activity might be ‘very interesting’,
but leads in no particular direction and hence does nothing to advance the progress
of the research.
Research planning and architectural planning have much in common.Each requires a
conceptualisation of the overall organisation and a detail plan before work on the
project can begin.For successful completion,a building requires plans that are clearly
conceived and accurately drawn. A research project should be no less totally visual-
ised and precisely detailed. (Leedy, 1989, p. 79)
According to Leedy (1989, p. 81), all research has a basic format. Whatever subjects
or disciplines are its focus, they all share the need of a central research problem, a
search for and collation of data, appropriate methods of analysis and the formula-
tion of substantiated conclusions. This is not to say that the methodology will be
similar in all disciplines. On the contrary, much of the planning of research projects
is taken up with deciding on the most appropriate techniques for data collection
and analysis. The underlying dynamics of the process also include the features of
the researcher, such as motivation, experience and skills; aspects of the research
situation, such as cost, time, facilities, situation etc.; and the needs and demands of
the respondents or others co-operating in the research.
Boxes 1.20, 1.21 and 1.22 give three examples of research plans, two for PhD
theses and the third for a funded research programme. Note that references in these
plans are not included in the reference list for this book.
Box 1.20 Example research plan 1
Oxford City Primary Care Group: A Case Study of Interagency Collaboration
Promoting independence in older people
For this part of the study, fracture of the neck of the femur (hip fracture) will be
used as a tracer condition. Care provision for this group potentially involves the
whole system of health and social care, including prevention (accident reduction),
trauma, rehabilitation, primary care, continuing community care, social services,
the voluntary sector,carers,day centres,residential care etc.If the PCG is to have an
impact on interagency collaboration,it should be apparent in the treatment of this
The study will seek to identify the impact of the PCG on interagency collabora-
tion from the perspectives both of those at management level and of service
users. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with a purposive sample of
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44 Your Research Project
representatives at middle management and operational levels of the agencies
involved. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) framework
will be used. A sampling frame is being composed by asking senior people in
relevant agencies to identify who in their organization would be the most appro-
priate person to interview in terms of their proximity to interfaces with other
agencies. These will be followed by semi-structured interviews to explore the
experiences of people who have returned home following a hip fracture and the
experiences of their carers.This will provide contextual data to corroborate (or not)
the accounts of the ‘professionals’. The methodological approach is to investigate
the perceptions of professionals and users,including comparing expectations with
actuality one year on, rather than measuring impacts directly. Service users and
their carers will be accessed through the A&E department at the John Radcliffe
Hospital. Medical Ethics Board approval will be sought. Fieldwork will be carried
out at two time points:at time 1 (April–June 2000) and at time 2 (April–June 2001).
Evaluation of the PCG’s Substance Misuse Services
This project is a PCG initiative that addresses one of its five stated priorities:
tackling the city’s drug and alcohol problems. The PCG has put in post a
Development Officer, Oxford Community Substance Misuse Services, for a year
from January 2000 with a budget of £100,000 to develop the initiative.The criteria
measured in the present study will be largely the objectives of the initiative, and
will therefore be specified in consultation with its steering group.
As with the previous part of the study, semi-structured interviews with a purpo-
sive sample of key informers at management and practitioner levels of the relevant
agencies will be conducted.A SWOT framework will be used.Service users will also
be interviewed to assess the impact of the PCG initiative on their experiences of
care. They will be accessed through the street drug agency, Libra. Using the
agency’s director as a ‘gatekeeper’, clients will be invited to take part in the study
on a voluntary basis. The approval of the Medical Ethics Board will be required.
Fieldwork will be carried out at two time points: at time 1 (April–June 2000) and at
time 2 (April–June 2001).
Monitoring structural change
The third element of the study will investigate the PCG’s impact on partnership
working and monitor structural change in the PCG in three ways:through interviews,
postal surveys and document analysis. Preliminary analysis of the interviews will
inform the construction of two postal questionnaires. Comparisons will be made
with the findings of the National Tracking Project which is carrying out a national
survey of a 15% sample of PCGs, part of which will be looking particularly at the
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